Let’s go back two years. Those were the darkest days in the history of the Minnesota Orchestra. Twelve months had passed without music. No end could be seen to what was becoming the longest and perhaps the most bitter labor dispute that any symphony orchestra had ever endured. Beloved music director Osmo Vänskä had just resigned. Artistic and financial recovery seemed unlikely. Many feared that the orchestra, acclaimed as one of the nation’s best, had sounded its last note.
All of that seems like a bad dream now. Thousands of music lovers will stream into Orchestra Hall this weekend to hear pieces by Bach, Strauss and Mahler. Vänskä will be at the podium. Crowds will stand to roar their appreciation. The spirit of last spring’s triumphant tour of Cuba still hangs in the air. Recording sessions resumed last June. Carnegie Hall awaits next March. By most accounts, the orchestra is close to recovering the technical excellence and exuberance that critics so admire. As for the balance sheet, the struggle to sell season tickets still remains, but that’s a challenge for classical orchestras worldwide. Overall, attendance is solid, and fundraising has boomed.
Returning from last week’s residency in Detroit Lakes, the orchestra also has re-established its chops outstate. Playing in schools, in nursing homes, on an Indian reservation, in a wine bar, in a theater and at the town’s famed lakeside dance pavilion, the musicians logged an exhausting 24 events in five days — but emerged energized.
“It feels amazing,” said principal trombonist Doug Wright, who was part of a brass quintet that played the Becker County Jail. “They were glaring at us at first, but it turned out to be the greatest transformation I’ve ever experienced,” he said. Maybe it wasn’t quite Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, but by the end of the concert the inmates gathered around, asking questions about the music and the instruments. To many of the musicians, bringing their music to unexpected places and to audiences unlikely to turn up at Orchestra Hall is a great joy, and it’s a big part of the orchestra’s mission.
“Things are good right now, maybe even better than they seem,” Wright said, expanding on the notion that you don’t really know what you’ve got until you almost lose it. And, indeed, Minnesota almost lost it. The mutual affection between orchestra and audience is “palpable,” he said, and unlike any other symphony with which he has played.
The orchestra’s new president, Kevin Smith, agrees that, in many ways, the near-death experience of two years ago has transformed the organization. Players mingle and connect more with audiences; they have more influence in music programming, and the board is working closely with activist groups that supported musicians during the lockout. In short, the orchestra, while still a performer, now feels more like a community partner. Fundraising is up considerably, both in dollars and in the number of donors.
Half of the one-third decline in subscriptions suffered during the renovation/lockout period has been restored, and individual tickets are moving briskly. In the longer term, there’s more work to be done. The orchestra still must rely too heavily on large annual gifts and endowment draws to balance its budget. But most vital signs are positive.
“Everyone now has a greater appreciation for fragility, and we’re all working harder not just to keep what we have but to grow,” Smith said. “It’s nice to have momentum.”